Many Protestants who are convinced that being a member of a church with Apostolic Succession is faithful to the Gospel often want to discern which Apostolic church to join. This is far too big a question to answer in every respect in a blog post as there are so many claimants (the Nestorians, Anglicans, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and “Eastern” Orthodox). In this article, we are only going to weigh the arguments for Orthodoxy vis a vis Roman Catholicism. Being that this is just a blog post, I will try to jam as much content into 3,000 words as possible.
For those who do not want to read, a Roman Catholic apologist Erick Ybarra and I had a debate on this topic during the Reason and Theology Show. This debate can be listened to on MP3 or watched on Youtube:
The following are the notes to my opening statement during the debate, open to all so they can be used as a resource and scrutinized accordingly. As I roll out future articles I may update this page to include more references. God willing, the following will help you discern the issue, even if it is just a historical curiosity to you.
The Scriptures on schism. Summary: Schism is forcing someone else out of the Church.
They will cast you out of the synagogues (John 16:2).
The importance of the preceding is that we may infer that Christians were never the schismatics–the Jews of the first century “started it.”
Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church (3 John 1:9-10).
As I posit in the summary, we can see that Diotrephes is a schismatic because he put others out of the Church, apparently for the sake of preeminence. Tragically, the Roman Catholic Church in their assertion of “universal jurisdiction” put local Orthodox Catholic Bishops “out of the Church,” literally conducting the exact same sinful act Diotrephes was condemened for.
The Fathers on schism. Summary: Schism is forcing someone else out and setting up a parallel church, i.e. not recognizing the Bishop that is already there and installing another.
This summary (presuming it’s true) contradicts the modern Roman Catholic definition:
Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him (CCC, 2089).
My assertion is that no one pre-schism gives such a definition. Rather, the fathers give the definition as summarized. Here are the writings of the fathers which I collected indiscriminately from New Advent and Aquinas Study Bible. I have put the fathers in chronological order in an honest attempt to present every passage that does not merely say “schism,” but actually describes what it is. Let’s start with Saint Cyprian:
For we have not withdrawn from them, but they from us; and since heresies and schisms have risen subsequently, from their establishment for themselves of diverse places of worship, they have forsaken the Head and Source of the truth (Cyprian, Treatise 1, Par 12).
The preceding shows that according to Saint Cyprian the fault in a schism is on the side that separates first, specifically by setting up separate (i.e. “parallel”) churches.
The word of the witnessing apostle is:
We command you, says he,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from all brethren that walk disorderly, and not after the tradition that they have received from us. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 And again he says,
Let no man deceive you with vain words; for because of these things comes the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not therefore partakers with them. Ephesians 5:6 We must withdraw, nay rather must flee, from those who fall away, lest, while any one is associated with those who walk wickedly, and goes on in ways of error and of sin, he himself also, wandering away from the path of the true road, should be found in like guilt. God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. Unity cannot be severed; nor can one body be separated by a division of its structure, nor torn into pieces, with its entrails wrenched asunder by laceration. Whatever has proceeded from the womb cannot live and breathe in its detached condition, but loses the substance of health (Cyprian, Treatise 1, Par 23).
As we can see, Saint Cyprian says if a side then separates and does not allow back into communion “those who fall away” (i.e. the schismatics), this is at the very least an allowable state of affairs. So, for example, the Roman Catholic crusaders come and kick out indigenous Orthodox Bishops and priests–installing their own clergy and excommunicating the locals. In this event, we can see that the local clergy were justified in severing relations. This means the Orthodox Church today, even if it is “less ecumenical,” would still not be the side in schism. The Roman Catholic Church, by separating, is no longer part of the Church and those in the Church are not morally compelled, according to Saint Cyprian, to take them back.
The next father we will look at is Saint Optatus. This is because he (1) reiterates Saint Cyprian’s thought and (2) teaches us a right understanding of what “the Chair of Peter” really is. During the debate, the only compelling argument Roman Catholics have that they are not in schism is that the Pope in some exclusive sense sits in the Chair of Peter and therefore can excommunicate anyone without ever committing schism. But, is this a right understanding of Peter’s Chair?
For it was not Caecilian who went forth from Majorinus, your father’s father, but it was Majorinus who deserted Caecilian; nor was it Caecilian who separated himself from the Chair of Peter, or from the Chair of Cyprian—-but Majorinus, on whose Chair you sit—-a Chair which had no existence before Majorinus himself (Optatus, Against the Donatists, Book I, Chap 10).
As we can see, Optatus states that (1) Caecilian was not the one who separated from “the Chair of Peter” and (2) this “Chair of Peter” is identical with “the Chair of Cyprian.” We know this is so, because Majorinus has a new Chair. Cyprian, not considered a schismatic by Optatus, could not have had a second Chair as this would entail Cyprian not having Apostolic succession.
How does this work? I am indebted to an Orthodox monk who commended me to look at the Apostolic Succession lists in Saint Irenaeus, Tertullian, Eusebius, and etcetera and take note that no succession list begins with a major Apostle as its first Bishop. In fact, all Bishoprics (including the Apostolic ones) have their source in Saint Peter. Therefore, all Bishops not in schism sit in the Chair of Peter, because they have not set up another Chair.
My friend drinks from the font of the saints themselves. As Saint Optatus explains:
So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world…You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Chair [Cathedra], on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Chair, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim–each for himself–separate Chairs, so that he who should set up a second Chair against the unique Chair would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one Chair, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit (St Optatus, Against the Donatists, Book II, Chap 2).
As we can see, the other Apostles do not have “separate Chairs.” A “second” and “unique Chair” is schismatic. Hence, it is the setting up another Chair that puts one in schism, not by being “not Peter [i.e. the Pope].” This important point disproves any Roman Catholic contentions that the Pope, by some sort of default, cannot go into schism–as this would contradict the explanation Saint Optatus is giving.
Historically speaking, Saint Peter was the first Bishop for almost every single church of note in the Roman world. He traditionally consecrated Saint Paul (whether this is through his successors in Antioch in Acts 13 or when Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem mentioned in Gal 1 we do not know, I prefer the former). He was also the primary Bishop of the Jerusalem church. If one realizes this, almost every ancient Church that we know of would have Petrine succession by any measure, without invoking any sort of idea that Peter was the Archbishop to the other Apostles (who too had Bishoprics).
The preceding is something implicit in the ecclesiology of the fathers. Saint Jerome writes:
The Church is founded upon Peter, although in another place, the same thing is done upon all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the strength of the Church is established equally upon them all. Yet, therefore, among the twelve Apostles, one is chosen, that a head being appointed, occasion of schism may be taken away (Saint Jerome, Against Jovinian, Book I, Par 26). (Link).
Jerome’s explanation is important for two reasons. (1) It reiterates that all Apostles (and therefore Bishoprics) are founded on Peter, as this principle of a common origin in Saint Peter himself allows for unity and, by extension, makes it clear when a schismatic sets up a separate Chair. (2) It shows that having Peter’s “keys” is not the decisive factor in any way, as all Apostles and Bishops have “keys.” This is why elsewhere Optatus writes that Parmenian, the schismatic Donatist Bishop of Carthage, “rightly hast thou claimed the Keys for Peter…although you are not in the Catholic Church, these things cannot be denied, since you have shared true Sacraments with us” (Ibid., Chap 12). Clearly, having the “keys of Peter” was not contingent upon communion with Rome, something that contradicts the Lateran Council of 1215 and the CCC.
Some allege that Optatus thought the city of Rome had the “Chair of Peter” is a way that superseded Cyprian (something that both Saints Cyprian and Firmilian did not believe, the latter overtly accusing Pope Stephen I of Rome of “breaking peace” and causing schism in Cyprian’s Epistle 74, Par. 25). I honestly think such assertions are the result of out-of-context interpretations.
Optatus, when he cites the Chair of Peter in Rome itself, appears to be doing so because the Donatists had a Pope and his succession came from Carthage–not the original line of Bishops at Rome. Hence, it was clear to all who set up a second Chair. This is why Saint Optatus in Book III, Chap 3 writes, “Now do you show the origin of your [Macrobius, the Donatist Bishop of Rome mentioned in Chap 4] Cathedra [chair], you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves!” The idea is, if you look at Macrobius’ succession, you will find a usurper.
This logic is a dagger that ironically points back at Rome herself in the same century. During the Meletian schism, the Popes backed Bishops of Antioch such as Paulinus whose ordinations originated from Lucifer Caligari (an Italian, not an Antiochene). Ironically, Saint Meletius, according to a letter from Saint Jerome, never broke communion with the Pope. Yet, that same Pope recognized Paulinus and not Meletius. It is clear, via succession, who broke the peace and was the schismatic–Paulinus, his ilk, and the Popes of the late fourth century. Ironically, being that Saint Meletius’ line of succession eventually won out, he was vindicated by history and this is a crystal clear example that Rome can indisputably go into schism and no “magical mega Chair powers” can prevent it.
Now, let’s cover some other fathers. Saint John Chrysostom writes:
He [that is Jesus Christ] is moreover continually frequenting the synagogues, lest if He were always abiding in the wilderness, they should the more accuse Him as making a schism, and fighting against their polity (Chrysostom on Matt 15:34).
As we can see, when I said that “the Christians were never the schismatics–the Jews of the first century ‘started it,'” this is not my own private interpretation. Chrysostom recognized this. Hence, if the Roman Catholics “started” the schism, then this bears mightily on the question of who indeed were the schismatics.
Saint Augustine writes:
Why, then, have you severed yourselves by so rash and profane schism from the communion of innumerable Eastern Churches…? [I]t is manifest that you have been guilty of impious schism in separating yourselves from the communion of the whole world (Augustine, Letter 87, Par 1-2).
In Augustine’s speculations on the topic of schism, he never defines the sin as separating oneself from Rome, as the CCC states. Rather, he presumes upon the simple, Biblical and Patristic definition–separating yourself (i.e. “starting it,” “setting up a second Chair”), is the schismatic act. If the Donatists’ separating from Rome was, at its core, what was actually schismatic about Donatism, why does Augustine fail to ever actually say this? Any references to Rome I believe are similar to Optatus’. Their function is simply to elaborate upon how absurd the Donatists were, as their “second Chair” in Rome would have been clear for all to see.
Lastly, a later Spanish saint also asserts that “whoever separates first and sets up a parallel church is in schism:”
…those who try to make heresies and schisms now in the Church, and deceive many who are drawn along with them, looking down on the priests of Christ and separating many from fellowship with their clergy…[they] dare to set up churches and some make prayers at another altar with illicit voices, profaning the truth of the Lord’s Day victim by false sacrifice (St Beatus of Liebana on Rev 2:9).
History’s judgement. In review, by the Roman criteria in the CCC the east was in schism the moment Rome excommunicated them. However, if we use the Biblical and Patristic definition, Rome was in schism when they:
- Appointed new Bishops in Italy after the Norman Conquest without the consent of local populations, who for centuries resisted Roman encroachments.
- Excommunicated the Orthodox Catholics starting in 1054 AD.
- Chadwick states that, There was no [reciprocal] excommunication of the Pope, though eventually it came to be supposed that was what the patriarch had done (East and West, p. 212).
- Letter of Basil of Calabria (1080s) shows that the Roman church was complicit in excommunication, as the Pope demanded universal jurisdiction from Basil and threatened to have the Normans remove him from his Bishopric otherwise.
- A 1089 letter of emperor alexios asserted that the eastern churches did not excommunicate Rome.
- Communion was still being offered to the Roman Catholics as late as the council at Nicaea and Nymphaion in 1234 AD.
- Expelled and replaced the Orthodox bishop of Antioch in 1100AD after recognizing him for two years, thereby creating a parallel Church.
- Followed the same policy in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and everywhere they occupied.
- i.e. Bishop Leonitus of Jerusalem was forbidden to enter Jerusalem and was given a death threat for entering his see.
- Ironically, wherever this policy was not followed, particularly the Aegean islands and Cyprus, intercommunion persisted for centuries. This specifically shows that it was Roman Catholic aggression and the setting up of secondary Chairs (and not simply a parallel jurisdiction, as they did not allow for the indigenous Orthodox clergy on the mainland) that created schism.
- Granted indulgences for crusades during the 13th century against historically Christian populations in Greece and Russia, replacing Orthodox Bishops with ones not recognized by the local community.
- This established parallel Uniate churches and their obvious second Chairs.
- Ignored sensible attempts at reunion which would end parallel jurisdictions.
- i.e. Emperor John Vataces’s offer that Latin Bishop of Antioch serve out his term and then jurisdiction would revert back to the Greeks was rejected.
- Centuries of Uniate evangelism occurred into the present day.
- Obviously, you do not “evangelize” people who are considered brothers within the same Church. The Orthodox did not reciprocate until the 20th century and this is after two centuries of Imperial Russian expansion into historically Roman Catholic lands. Ironically, evangelization is among mostly American Orthodox. In Europe, Orthodox mainly evangelize their separated Uniate brethren.
The tragedy of the preceding, as Erick admitted in the debate, was that a single example of the Orthodox Christians initiating schism cannot be brought to bear. In fact, all of these obviously schismatic acts from Roman Catholics occurred without any Orthodox retaliation for centuries. This means that Roman Catholics, with the reward of indulgences being granted, forcefully replaced Bishops and Crusaded Orthodox lands, while the Orthodox generally did not persecute Roman Catholics.
In fact, perhaps the only true “persecution” against Uniates occurred under Stalin, because they picked the side of the Nazis. This was, in fact, not really an Orthodox persecution at all. And, though some cite the debacle in Chelm as an “Orthodox Crusade,” one Uniate scholar admits (p. 367) that it was the fault of local Latin Rite Roman Catholic clergy vis a vis their Uniate rivals. In fact, all of the people involved in Chelm were Roman Catholics!
Conclusion. In short, if we maintain a Biblical and Patristic definition of schism, it is crystal clear that time and again, over centuries, the Roman Catholics are the schismatics. They set up second Chairs and parallel jurisdictions. It is a sad fact of history that must be recognized so that healing between both sides may occur.